Old Roses

She was one of those vague, powdery old ladies with a scent about them of lavender. Cheeks soft as petals, fragile, her sentences trailing off behind her like shawls. She would be in the garden, said the nurse.

In her room, a posy of old roses on the bedside table in a tiny glass vase; a string of rather good pearls tangled up with her reading glasses. I bent to see the solitary photograph, a sepia portrait formally posed, a war-bride in a lace cap, her soldier-husband achingly young in his thick, scratchy uniform.

‘May 1944,’ she’d written underneath, spidery hand-writing sloping off to the right. She was my grandmother’s sister, my great-aunt. Only mentioned in an undertone, oblique references to ‘poor Hettie,’ accompanied by significant glances to where I sat under the table, listening hard.

I placed my hand on the bed, testing for dampness, then sat on the pink and purple crocheted bedspread. It sagged beneath me. I had not met her until after my grandmother’s death, a month ago, when it fell to me to sort through the papers.

I took the photograph from the bedside table. Her face, an old-fashioned sort of pretty that made it hard to know whether she looked older or younger than her 20 years. She peeped shyly from under her curls. No make-up, no bright red lipstick or bold gaze. A faraway look, as if she had been pretending to be somewhere else.

I took the envelope from my bag and unfolded the newspaper clipping, the doctor’s report, the committal papers. Hester Nesbitt, March 1945. Committed to Park View Asylum for the Mentally Infirm, category: criminally insane.

They’d found the little body wrapped in the Daily Express and tucked up in the empty rabbit hutch at the bottom of the garden. Ten tiny fingers, ten tiny toes. A lambswool pelt of hair on his head. According to a whisper I’d once overheard, black as the Ace of Spades.

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